Keyboard Warriors

Homeland Security increasing use of biometrics; leaks reveal coordination between Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks; and more.

  • The big picture: It’s been another bad year for internet freedom globally, Freedom House reports in its annual report “Freedom on the Net 2017.” The biggest new finding from its survey of 67 countries that have 87 percent of the world’s internet users: more governments are using social media to spread propaganda, with “Online manipulation and disinformation tactics play[ing] an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States.” In addition, the report notes that:

    Venezuela, the Philippines, and Turkey were among 30 countries where governments were found to employ armies of “opinion shapers” to spread government views, drive particular agendas, and counter government critics on social media. The number of governments attempting to control online discussions in this manner has risen each year since Freedom House began systematically tracking the phenomenon in 2009. But over the last few years, the practice has become significantly more widespread and technically sophisticated, with bots, propaganda producers, and fake news outlets exploiting social media and search algorithms to ensure high visibility and seamless integration with trusted content.


  • This is serious, folks. As Freedom House points out: “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating. The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside.” So much for John Perry Barlow’s independence of cyberspace! The governments of the industrial world, those weary giants of flesh and steel, decided not to leave the internet alone.

  • What is to be done? Freedom House says: “Successfully countering content manipulation and restoring trust in social media—without undermining internet and media freedom—will take time, resources, and creativity. The first steps in this effort should include public education aimed at teaching citizens how to detect fake or misleading news and commentary. In addition, democratic societies must strengthen regulations to ensure that political advertising is at least as transparent online as it is offline. And tech companies should do their part by reexamining the algorithms behind news curation and more proactively disabling bots and fake accounts that are used for antidemocratic ends. In the absence of a comprehensive campaign to deal with this threat, manipulation and disinformation techniques could enable modern authoritarian regimes to expand their power and influence while permanently eroding user confidence in online media and the internet as a whole.”

  • Privacy, shmivacy: EFF’s Jennifer Lynch warns that the Department of Homeland Security is moving to expand its collection and use of biometrics across its agencies, starting with the TSA’s use of face recognition, iris scans and fingerprints in its PreCheck program and the Customs and Border Protection’s use of face recognition to capture pictures of travelers crossing borders. Considering that no government agency or private company is capable of fully protecting private information, Lynch warns that “losing your social security or credit card numbers to fraud is nothing compared to losing your biometrics. While you can change those numbers, you can’t easily change your face.”

  • Trump watch: It looks like Attorney General Jeff Sessions is considering appointing a special counsel to investigate some of President Trump’s political rivals. As Josh Marshall explains for Talking Points Memo, this is “as bad as it looks.”

  • A leak (how ironic) of direct messages between WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and Donald Trump Jr. shows that the two worked in coordination in the fall of 2016 to publicize the stolen trove of emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, as Julia Ioffe reports for The Atlantic. At the time, top Trump campaigners, including Mike Pence, were insisting that the campaign wasn’t “in cahoots” with WikiLeaks. Later, Assange apparently lobbied Trump Jr. to get his dad to tell Australia to appoint him their ambassador to the U.S.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Facebook is now beginning to admit that it may have been a platform for Russian-linked meddling in the Brexit vote, Mark di Stefano and Alberto Nardelli report for Buzzfeed.

  • Factcheckers working for third-party journalism organizations that are part of Facebook’s new initiative to battle misinformation say the effort is failing and that their labor is being exploited for a PR campaign, The Guardian’s Sam Levin reports.

  • Money in politics: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has presidential aspirations, has the most unusual campaign war-chest in modern American politics—it is almost completely bereft of contributions from small donors. Over 99 percent of his $25 million-plus came in donations of over $1,000, reports Shane Goldmacher of The New York Times, who quotes a small raft of tech-politics veterans—Michael Whitney, Betsy Hoover, Zephyr Teachout, and (drink!) Joe Trippi—who note how anachronous this is. Also, Goldmacher notes, for all that money, Cuomo’s “website is badly outdated. The link to volunteer is broken (the page also currently echoes President Trump’s slogan: ‘Governor Andrew Cuomo is fighting to make New York great again’). People who sign up for email updates do not get a welcome message, or any emails at all sometimes for months.” (Ya know, that might not be a bad thing.)

  • This is civic tech: Here’s a nice explainer from CitizenLab on some of the differences between civic tech and govtech. My favorites: civic tech is centered on citizens as the beneficiary; govtech is centered on government as its customer. Civic tech values engagement; govtech values efficiency.

  • Tech humanism is gaining momentum, writes Rachel Coldicutt, the CEO of DotEveryone in the UK.

  • Code for San Jose developers Yan-Yin Choy, Lorin Camargo and Angelique De Castro reflect on participating in last month’s first Code for America Brigade Congress.

  • VentureBeat’s Anna Hensel reports on former Googler Matt Dunne’s efforts to build the Center for Rural Innovation’s network of innovation hubs across rural America.

  • Caring Across Generations is looking to hire an email campaigner and a social media manager.